Fourth in series: 40 Days of Faith 2017
Life is full of conversions & learning
Today we are continuing our series on the Bible’s book of Acts. It is an exciting book full of action and narrative of the very first days of the Christian church, right after the Resurrection of Jesus. Today we are going to talk about the story of one man who was very important to the early church. This man, Saul of Tarsus, who later became known as Paul, was born to an upper class Jewish family. They could afford to send him to study with one of the more renowned religious teachers of his time. It would be kind of like going to Harvard Divinity School in our day.
As Saul progresses in his studies, he becomes part of a religious movement called the Pharisees. The Pharisees were very zealous about their faith and their understanding of it. They obeyed a long list of religious laws. In the book of Acts we see that Saul is extra zealous. He had a particular problem with this new sect of Christians. The text says that “Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” and he wasn’t just satisfied to do so where he was living, he wanted to go take care of these pesky Christians in nearby cities, here’s what the text says:
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” 7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. 10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. 11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” 13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” 17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
This in and of itself is a powerful story. After this period, we see that Paul’s life is completely turned around. He goes from being someone who persecuted Christians to someone who is so vocal about preaching Christ that he’s getting attacked for it in city after city for the rest of his life. This is the result of a clearly dramatic conversion experience.
Life with Jesus is full of conversions of many kinds, or as one pastor I know describes it, these are defining moments in our life with Jesus. The first of these conversions is Jesus coming alive to someone for the first time. It would be a mistake to think that it ends there however. God has a way of surprising us with more conversions, more defining moments along the way that breathe new life into our journey with him. But let’s start by talking for a second about these initial conversions.
These kinds of conversion experiences where Jesus comes alive for the first time to someone can be a bit complicated for at least three reasons.And those are the same three reasons other conversion experiences or defining moments can be complicated.
The first reason is that they are not easily predictable or controllable. So in this case for example, I’m sure that Paul had no clue what was coming when he left Jerusalem on his way to Damascus. Not only can they not be easily predicted, they also cannot really be manufactured. If you asked Paul such a question I’m sure his answer would be “like yeah sure, I could have blinded myself for three days just like that… I do that once in a while you know…”. No, it’s always something that God initiates.
That doesn’t mean that God does not have a role for others to play as he shows himself to us. In fact Paul himself in one of his letters later in the Bible says : “And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? 15 And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? ”
So God has a role for us to play, as he sends us to tell others, but in the end, if they have a conversion experience or not is in his hands, not ours. We can’t manufacture it. And I suppose that’s powerful, in a way, as it shows God’s desire to pursue us on his terms; it shows that faith doesn’t come down to “I have to get right, so I can then get to God.” Rather, God genuinely likes us, likes us enough to come after us, having nothing to do with us or our “performance” or “good grades” if you will.
The second reason these experiences are hard to understand is that they seem to vary greatly in the level of intensity. I think Paul for example would be at one extreme of a highly dramatic conversion. Maybe you’ve heard of some of these, but for most of us, they are not quite that dramatic. I know mine wasn’t.
My own experience would be probably somewhere in the middle. During my teen-age years I had walked away from the Christian faith I grew up with. I came to a point where I found it very difficult to believe that God could interact with human beings and answer prayers. I believed that God had created the Universe knowing exactly how it would unfold because there was no other way God, who knew everything, could act. Of course I didn’t take into consideration that God could build a Universe with a certain level of freedom and uncertainty built in, but hey I was only a teenager.
Then through a series of events, I ended up listening to a speaker talk about how God had answered his prayer. The story was so unbelievable and the probability of it being due to chance was so remote, that something just clicked inside of me and I realized that I had been wrong, and that God did answer prayer. At the end of his talk he asked people to stand up who wanted to commit themselves to Jesus and I found myself enthusiastically standing up. That was a powerful turning point for me and nothing has been the same since.
For others like my wife, it happens gradually over time. One analogy I like is from an Anglican Vicar called Nikki Gumbel. He describes it sometimes like taking a train from Paris to Berlin. You don’t necessarily know at what point you have crossed the French German border, but when you arrive in Berlin, you know that you did cross it at some point. For my wife Marijean she was invited by her neighbors to attend their church. She went and over a period of time her faith came alive in a new way, but she couldn’t tell you a time or a date, and it was not anything dramatic.
The third reason these experiences can be complicated is that they can have varying results, and this is where things get really interesting. We are going to look at 3 possible scenarios: The first is where some people for whom conversion experiences are just that, experiences. They have an experience of a spiritual high but then nothing comes of it. I know one woman who was deeply moved by the presence of the Holy Spirit during a prayer time, and her tears flowed freely. Afterwards she attributed it all to hormones. There was no lasting impact. The second is where there is some change after the conversion experience, but it doesn’t last. Either it peters out or something happens that derails it. We see this quite commonly with high profile conversions among celebrities.Sometimes people have a conversion experience, grow for a while, but it does not last. The third is where the conversion is just the beginning of a lifetime of constant growth in their relationship with God, like we see in the story of Paul.
The bottom line is that every conversion story, no matter how dramatic, in and of itself, is not enough. It is really only just the beginning. Jesus, after he rose from the dead, in Matthew 28, during his last appearance to the disciples said to them “go and make disciples of all nations”, he did not say go and make converts of all nations.
The word disciple means learner. A disciple of Jesus is someone who constantly learns from Jesus. God therefore wants to make sure that his church, that’s us folks, do not stop with just conversion. We are meant to continuously grow in our relationship with God, that’s the discipleship part. If we continue on in Acts, after Paul’s dramatic conversion and after this man from Damascus Ananias prays for him, we learn that Paul stayed with and actively wanted to learn from Ananias -- it seems to always be a three-step dynamic:
First, there is an initial experience that gets our attention, and second, it is followed by learning what to do in response, and third is to act on what we’ve learned.
As I mentioned, a life with Jesus is full of conversions and defining moments (and hopefully corresponding discipleship). In my own life, I can count about four or five turning points that I could describe as conversion experiences or defining moments. First was the experience of my faith coming alive as I just described to you, then I had some experiences of God’s supernatural reality that deepened my faith significantly and how I related to Him I had a series of experiences that convinced me that God could heal supernaturally today I had a series of experiences that convinced me that God could and does speak to us today in amazing ways Another conversion experience had to do with God getting me out of my overly analytical head and getting me in touch with my feelings One conversion experience showed me my blindness to my elitist attitudes and helped me change that I also had a conversion experience about money. I don’t have time today to tell you about all the other experiences, but I will share with you about this last one, where God brought about a heart conversion for Marijean and me around our finances.
Now I want to say I’m aware that I’m about to tell you a story about finances at a time when Vince and Kyle are trying to raise funds to move our church into its next stage of growth, in order to get the church to a sustainable place. I want to tell you upfront that it was not their idea for me to tell you this story or to talk about money at all, and this is not intended to help their fundraising effort, but if it does help it, then I at least, think that’s a good thing. But if you feel at all manipulated, just tune me out for the next five minutes, but then come back for the rest of the sermon OK? so here it goes, our financial conversion story.
When Marijean and I were dating, engaged, and newly married, our experience of our church at the time and the larger movement of churches we were in, Vineyard, was really alive -- characterized by powerful worship music, amazing answered prayers and so on. We used to go to conference after conference and never get enough.
Then we had our first child, and we couldn’t go to conferences easily any more. It became practically impossible. For those of you who know our oldest son Nathan, you wouldn’t guess it knowing him now, but he really messed up our spiritual lives back then… We did discover, however, that we could use long drives in the car to listen to conference tapes. Everyone know what a cassette tape is? Ok good, just thought I’d ask…
It happened that we were going on a long drive to visit my relatives in Montreal in 1992, so we asked around for some conference tapes to listen to on the way there. So as we asked for recommendations we were told this one set of tapes was very good. The title was “Breaking the Spirit of Poverty”.
To give you some background on where we were at financially, when we were first married we had kids quickly, and that changed our financial situation radically. We wanted Marijean to be able to stay home with the kids, and the cost of daycare was prohibitive anyway. The nice condominium we had bought before having kids was consuming more than 50 percent of our income. We really wanted a house with a yard for the kids, but it seemed well beyond our means. Before we had kids, I had gotten a better job with a significant increase in my income, and on top of that I had taken on a part-time job teaching so we could have more money, and I took on yet another part time job doing consulting. I also got a promotion. I had doubled our income within a few years, but it was still not enough. Money kept going out as fast—or faster—than it came in.
So back to the conference tapes. As we were driving then in Ontario somewhere, the speaker on the tape mentioned a verse (Haggai 1:6) that spoke of how the Israelites made money and put it in purses with holes in them [pause and repeat for effect] they made money, and put it in purses with holes in them… he had my attention. That is exactly how I felt—that I was putting money in purses with holes in them. The more money I made, the faster it went out, I made money and it went out as fast as it came in. I was putting money in purses with holes in them. From then on I listened intently as the Holy Spirit spoke to us through the tapes.
The takeaway of the tapes was something called tithing: that Christians should give 10 percent of their gross income, and give all of it to their main church. This is an Old Testament teaching where God asked the Israelites to give the first ten percent of their income to support the Temple and the priests. Any additional offering could then go to other charitable causes. This was different than what we were doing. We were tithing off the net. That means that we were tithing ten percent after taxes and after insurance costs. Basically what our take home pay was, we took ten percent and gave that away.
But we weren’t giving all that to our church. We were dividing it up between church and other charitable causes. So we had to make some changes. I’d had a God-initiated experience with that line from Haggai about putting money in purses with holes in them, God had gotten my attention, that was the first of the three step process. BUT now came the second step where I had to learn what I needed to do in response, and then third to actually do it.
So as we learned about how to tithe, God was teaching us other things about finances, like how to make and stick to a budget, how to only use credit cards when we could pay them off at the end of the month, and so on. And as we learned these things, we had to do step 3, which was to act on them. We also put our condo on the market and were willing to sell it and move to an apartment, which felt very humbling but we became willing to do it whereas before we were not. All of this was not without its rewards however.
The speaker on the tape pointed to another verse from the Old Testament (this one in Malachi) and it’s the only area in the whole Bible where God says “Test me in this.” God doesn’t like us to test him. Kind of like parents don’t like their children to manipulate them. So it’s the only place, the only topic in the Bible where God says to test him and see that he will respond positively. God seems to tell the Israelites that he rewards generously when people give generously. And sure enough, as we did those things, our financial situation changed. I got a much better job, with a good salary increase, and we were able to afford our first home in Morton Grove.
Now please don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that God wants to place some rules on us for giving and that we earn his favor that way. I believe that everything God asks us to do, he asks out of love for us because it is good for us. I may not fully understand why God likes me to give at least ten percent of my income to the church, but I can guess at a few reasons. It may be that God wants me to feel part of his movement here on earth, and that this helps me remember that I am part of a greater and more life giving thing that God is doing in this world. It may be that this helps me not be as self-focused on my own needs and desires, and the misery that comes with that kind of self centeredness. I’m sure there are more reasons, but those two seem immediately apparent to me.
Since that time Marijean and I have had our share of financial questions and decisions, and we’ve been tempted to cut back our giving at times, and at times felt the call to give more. I can tell you that the conversion part was just the beginning for us. It was just step one. We have had to take lots of step twos and threes since then, we have had to continue to learn and to continue to make lots of decisions and live into that conversion experience and what it taught us.
To go over it one last time then, it is always a three step process, so today, if you feel like somewhere along your journey you experienced a step 1 conversion, but somehow you’ve missed steps 2 or 3 to learn more or to actually live it out, or maybe you did for a while, and stopped for some reason, I want to invite you to pray with me about that…
I would also invite anyone who feels like maybe you haven't really had that first step of feeling like God made himself real to you. That you would ask him to do that for you now. If the first step is something God does to us, all we have to do is make ourselves open to that. I want to invite anyone who is wanting that to pray for it today, that god would do that now.
Or lastly, if you’re feeling God might be drawing you towards a dramatic shift in anything in your life (like any of the conversions I’ve experienced), this morning is a safe space for you to tell God: I’m open to that. I want that.
This morning I want to encourage you to actively pursue God’s action, the things he does are amazing, he’s an awesome God, he is full of surprises and new life. Sometimes that’s not an easy thing, but it is so totally worth it. When I look back at these episodes in my life, I am filled with so much gratitude for what God has done for me, none of these things I could have dreamed of in a million years. This is what I’d like to pray about with you today, so let’s pray, if you would stand with me...
Lord, for those here who want you to become more real to them, I pray that you would give them that experience even now. And I pray it would not stop there but that you would take them into a learning process and into a changed life from there.
And Lord for those who have felt conversion experiences that petered out, or seemed to fade away without real change, I pray that you would bring those back to life again, and bring the learning and the changes that need to take place.